When forging ahead at unprecedented speeds, it’s easy to forget to turn around and look at what you’ve left in your wake. Since 1978, when China first embraced reform and opening up, the country has been developing at rates unseen by other nations. The world has applauded China’s economic advances, its efforts to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and its potential to overtake the United States as the largest economy in the world. Although China has managed to achieve great things in recent decades, such rapid change comes at a price. Let’s take a look at the cost of China’s development.
Photo: Yiran Ding
Culture is difficult to define, but as China continues to develop into a country typified by modern megacities, there has been a notable loss of it. China’s leadership has long equated urbanization and modernization with economic growth, typified most recently by the "renovation" of Beijing’s historic hutong lanes.
Part “renovation", part "relocation", the city tore down shops, evicted restaurants, bar owners and rental tenants, and re-bricked the modified windows and doors of the ancient alleyways. In addition, Beijing has closed several local markets over the past few years, offsetting the loss with Alibaba’s Hema Fresh supermarkets and several chain convenience stores.
While the charming hutongs lanes are invariably a big cultural draw for the country’s capital and a much appreciated microcosm of cool for the city’s hipster residents, however, it’s only fair to note that many buildings were unfit for human habitation, with no indoor plumbing, heating or insulation. While tourists and the expat community may mourn the loss of their favorite shabby-chic drinking holes, poor locals actually living in the hutongs are arguably better off — and, indeed, many argue to that effect — in newly built apartments elsewhere.
But Beijing is not alone. Major cities all over China are dealing with overpopulation, and through either government-led “renovations” or the illegal subdividing of housing and continuously rising rents, those of lesser means are forced to relocate to ever more distance realms. This naturally equates to a loss of diversity in terms of the cultures, foods, dialects and art that go in-hand with the organic growth of flourishing cities. In their bid to modernize, local authorities may find themselves governing aesthetically neat but increasingly homogenized cities.
Poverty alleviation is one of China’s key pledges, to be achieved by the end of 2020. A big part of the playbook to this end has been geared towards establishing “agricultural tourism”, allowing burnt-out urbanites to flock to rural areas and help farm or pick fruit, explore custom-built pleasure parks and simply enjoy nature.
While the drive has been a success on paper — with a total of 1.51 billion rural tourist trips made during the first half of 2019, providing jobs for 8.8 million people — the “movement” is far from organic, and the newly-built tourism parks feel and look just as manufactured as they are.
Another big tourism push has come in the form of “intangible cultural heritage”, unique cultural art forms that are being unearthed, incentivized, promoted and protected by the Chinese government. The government has subsidized training classes for these art forms, resulting in an influx of interest from impoverished citizens as well as a boost in tourism on the back of well-off urbanites hungry for “authentic” experiences during their annual vacations.
China’s efforts have also paid off in this department. In 2018, there were around 65,500 intangible cultural heritage-related performances and over 16,800 folk culture activities, attracting 98 million sets of eyes, according to a report from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. But although there might be an increased interest in both Chinese culture and domestic tourism, it still feels, and is, manufactured. This becomes especially obvious when we see many of these so-called heritages being modernized and adapted to current trends. “Some inheritors of wood paintings, paper cutting and porcelain have been sent to institutions of higher education to learn about changes in social needs. Their products have absorbed modern fashions and characteristics,” a 2019 Xinhua article proudly proclaims.
It is also unquestionably overkill; China has 1,372 representative intangible cultural heritage programs under state protection compared to only 40 programs on the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Call me a cynic, but there’s a reason they didn’t all make the UNESCO cut.
As China becomes more mainstream and gentrified, it will, in my opinion, become less attractive to foreigners, both tourists and expats. China’s “glory days” for expats are over, with both visa and internet regulations tightening, and the country is quickly losing that authentic “Wild East” vibe that appeals to adventurous globe-trotters.
Although this might be the case for foreigners, however, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for Chinese citizens. As life gets “better”, an increasing number of Chinese who studied abroad are returning to look for work or start businesses on the mainland. China’s strengthening job market and favorable domestic policies, along with Western countries’ tightening of immigration laws, have incentivized Chinese graduates to come back to the motherland in waves. According to the Ministry of Education, between 2014 and 2019 the return rate of overseas Chinese students has remained above 78 percent.
China’s development also makes it less attractive to foreign businesses who are heading to cheaper countries in Southeast Asia as the so-called Middle Kingdom pivots from the “world’s factory” to a technological powerhouse and a nation of consumers. While beneficial for both China’s economy and environment, this pivot, along with a depleting expat community, could see China lose out in terms of foreign innovation and thinking. The world is now fixated on selling its products to China as opposed to developing them alongside her.
If you want things to change in China, you need to control and modify the behavior of 1.3 billion people. That requires regulations and laws, both of which China has been rolling out like dumpling dough on Spring Festival in recent years. The Chinese government, recognizing that limited freedom of expression and privacy enables it to better monitor potentially problematic social issues, has been tirelessly gathering data while flagging and shutting down “dissenting voices”.
In addition to more and more websites being consumed by the country’s Great Firewall (as of October 2019, about 10,000 domain names are blocked in mainland China), other regulations have been tightened. For example:
● June 2017 - a new cybersecurity law went into effect requiring tech companies to store important data on servers within China, potentially making it easier for the government to track and persecute internet users.
● September 2017 - China banned cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (an IPO for cryptocurrency)
● October 2017 - the Cyberspace Administration of China released a regulation stating that internet companies and service providers are responsible for requesting and verifying the real names of users when they register and must immediately report illegal content to authorities.
● December 2019 - A Financial Times report states that Beijing ordered state-run offices to replace foreign PCs and software with domestic products in the next three years.
● Above all, many commentators are concerned about China's Black Mirror-style Social Credit System, which allocates and takes away “points” that may tangibly affect the lives of individual citizens, businesses and other organizations.
However, thanks to its strict regulations and hawk-like monitoring, China is one of the most safe, automated, smart and convenient countries in the world. And despite the encroaching restrictions, many Chinese citizens don’t seem particularly concerned. Dr. Zhang Weining, an associate professor at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, told Business Insider, “We don’t have privacy in China traditionally,” adding, “All the young people are very busy chasing their dreams, and old people don’t care. That means privacy is not the top priority in people’s lives.”
China’s development is unprecedented, and it is unquestionably impressive what the country has been able to achieve in such a short amount of time. However, there is always a cost, or several in China's case, of such breakneck metamorphosis. In the end, either China will work to develop in a way that minimizes these costs, or it’ll end up as a highly developed country with a lack of authentic culture, widespread commercialism and such suffocating regulation that many will likely wonder if it was better off before.
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Increased regulation If you want things to change in China, you need to control and modify the behavior of 1.3 billion people. That requires regulations and laws, both of which China has been rolling out like dumpling dough on Spring Festival in recent years. The Chinese government, recognizing that limited freedom of expression and privacy enables it to better monitor potentially problematic social issues, has been tirelessly gathering data while flagging and shutting down “dissenting voices”.
Apr 12, 2020 00:36 Report Abuse